Looking for the oldest tree at U of T
Velut arbor aevo. This Latin phrase is U of T’s motto, and means “as a tree through the ages,” expressing the hope that U of T will grow large and impressive like a mature tree. So to locate the oldest tree on campus is thus to find the tree that best embodies the motto of the school, and to find U of T’s very own living, breathing, and unacknowledged arboreal mascot.
This quest initially seemed like it would be over in a few minutes. Within two minutes of my 11:47pm email, Stan Szwagiel, head of grounds at U of T St. George, emailed me back with an enjoyably definitive answer: the oldest tree on campus is the elm tree behind the UTSU building. An impromptu hike to this location revealed an appropriately large and beautiful tree, which I was surprised I hadn’t noticed before. This tree has street cred: a few minutes after I heard from Mr. Szwagiel, Terry Carleton, a professor at the faculty of forestry, independently told me that this tree was his bet for the oldest on campus. Mr. Szwagiel thought that the size of the tree indicated that it could even be as old as 165 years, which would make it one year older than U of T (which came into existence in 1850), and that it could well be even older.
Through Paul Aird, an emeritus professor of forestry who has written a book about ecological fables and nature tales, I learned that the U of T Archives has a 1910 topographical map that lists all the trees that were then on campus. I consulted this map – which is over 6 feet tall and requires two people to open – but, intriguingly, the elm is not on it. The map does have some irregularities; could the cartographers just have missed the tree? For the UTSU elm is visible in an aerial photograph of the campus taken in 1933, and partially visible in a 1924 image. So it is at least 90 years old, and the size of the tree in those photographs makes it seem like it must have been more than a teenager then. And Mr. Szwagiel told me about another large elm tree on campus that recently had to be cut down after disease killed it. That tree had a trunk that was much smaller than the UTSU elm. When it was cut an arborist counted its rings and it was well over 150 years old. It’s enormous stump is still visible beside the path between Whitney Hall and the back campus field.
In order to learn more about trees in general I contacted Jennifer Gagné, a former forestry student who now works for the ministry of the environment. She used to lead tree tours on campus and took me on one. Our first stop was the two little copses planted at the centre of the forestry department building. According to Gagné, the one on the north-side is meant to replicate a Carolinian forest (sample species: a tulip tree, a Kentucky coffee tree), and the other a boreal forest (spruce, tamarack). According to Gagné, being enclosed within these buildings is not protecting or helping the trees; the boreal trees especially are not shade tolerant, and random shrubs have taken over the undergrowth. I later learned from Tony Ung, a forestry researcher, that the copses had gotten out of control and that they had to urgently cut out some of the brush. “We feared for the safety of students. People were sleeping in there. We found needles,” he told me. But today it seemed benign, soggy, lonely to me. Though for Gagné, the important personalities, the trees, are still here. To know the names and life stories of trees is to be surrounded by their presences. Human beings depend on trees quite as much as on rivers and the seas; the ability to know them is meaningful. And every tree has a different method to identify it, some more heuristic than scientific, like when Gagné began plunging her palm repeatedly into a conifer’s needles. If it hurts, it’s a Red Pine. And it did hurt. Leaving the copses, Gagné showed me a recent building at New College that had a hole in the third-story concrete balcony to allow the tree to grow through the building. A high-minded design, or maybe because the building was right beside the forestry department, where it’s probably harder to get rid of a perfectly healthy tree.
There is an oak tree on U of T’s coat of arms (rounded leaves, hence, a white oak), but an elm tree was probably the most significant tree in U of T’s history, being the deciding factor in the location of U of T’s most iconic building. In 1856, before UC College was built, the governor general and the architect were surveying the grounds. The governor general wanted the building to face west, though to the architect–and to us today–it seemed obvious that it should face south. The decision was made by the fact of a tall elm tree which the governor general, calling it, “the handsomest tree about Toronto,” did not want cut. He is reported to have told the architect: “I am sure that you can never put anything up half so pretty." So to save that tree, the building faced south. The tree was toppled in a storm the following year.
U of T exists atop the ghosts of cut forests and lost trees. If you stood in front of the UTSU elm as time was rolled back a hundred and fifty years, you would see the UTSU building taken down, Soldier’s Tower unspooled, and Hart House deconstructed. You would arrive to see the elm growing beside a thicket of other trees, all nestled together around the banks of a small pond. The pond is McCaul’s Pond (the tree is still on a bit of hill: the rise that used to be the pond’s edge), which was drained in the summer of 1879. Back then, there were only about 200 students at U of T, and the college was a semi-rural retreat, somewhat removed from the city, and nature and trees were among the chief pleasures of the school. Students and professors spent the afternoons taking walks. “No professor,” a student at the time said, “if he could avoid it, lectured in the afternoon, which was reserved for recreation and walking.”
People enjoy trees, but they also cut them down for heat and timber, and to make room for development. But perhaps the most destructive damage that people inflict on trees is accidental, though the spreading of disease. The UTSU elm is diseased with the scourge of elm trees, Dutch Elm disease, which spread to Ontario in 1951. Originating in the Himalayas, and named for the Dutch scientists who identified it, the disease is a fungal parasite. The effects of Dutch Elm are ruinous; Ms. Gagné explains that “elms almost kill themselves, because it triggers them to cut off the water system in their xylem, in order to get the fungus out.” In North America, elms have died by the millions. Many thought Dutch Elm would bring about the extinction of the American elm.
Elms used to be the dominant species at U of T, and now are among the more rare of native trees. There were more than 100,000 elms in metropolitan Toronto in the 1960s, 10 percent of all street trees, and 90 percent of the trees in the groves on the University of Toronto campus were American elm. There are currently 1368 maples to 158 elms. The main road into Kings College Circle used to be marked by a row of tall elms; now it has short young oaks. The introduction of Dutch elm disease in North America is the most significant event in the history of urban forestry. The disease altered urban forestry policy and law, and changed the public’s awareness of street tree management. Arborists trying to combat the devastation of this disease pioneered the profession of “tree health care,” opening up an entirely new industry for managing the care of urban trees. In fact, the term “urban forestry” was coined by a U of T professor, Erik Jorgensen, who was working on dealing with Dutch Elm disease. Even the current emerald ash borer pandemic is directly linked to Dutch Elm disease because most of the ash population are replacement trees for lost elms. In Toronto, 80% of the elm trees have been lost to Dutch Elm disease.
Mr. Szwagiel met me at the UTSU tree, and pointed out the tiny tell-tale holes at the base of the tree where it is has been injected with fungicide to stop the Dutch Elm. The tree gets hooked up to bottles of fungicide like a patient on an IV drip. If enough fungicide can be injected into the tree’s vascular system, then a spore introduced by a beetle won’t be able to germinate. Without this treatment, which is expensive, the tree could die within a year. Mr. Szwagiel also pointed out the extensive series of steel wires strung between the tree’s branches, which that add strength to it’s canopy and keep it from collapsing in storms. Without question this tree would be dead by now if it weren’t for the labour of the forestry professors, grounds crew, and arborists who contribute to it’s well-being. The university makes these efforts because these trees give campus much of its well-to-do, pastoral, collegiate identity. So perhaps trees should take as their motto “as a university through the ages.” The motto’s declaration to make the school like a tree—a line adapted from the roman poet Horace (Odes I.12, lines 45–46) “crescit occulto velut arbor aevo fama Marcelli”: Marcellus’ fame, its up-growth hid / springs like a tree—makes a fine picturesque image, but it does not reflect the fragility of our tree canopies in an age of globalized tree disease. The trees persist, but not without struggle and constant maintenance; which is also true enough for a university.
U of T St. George currently has over 3,000 trees (more now than in 1910), and, though the UTSU elm is a strong suspect, the jury is out on which one of them is empirically the oldest. Tony Ung says that the only way to know for sure is to take a core sample of the tree. He showed me the apparatus, a sort of tree corkscrew—“from the 1940s, I think”—that he would use to get a sample; a process that, most likely, would not harm the tree. But it is still a risk and Mr. Szwagiel does not want to immediately pursue that option. The age of this tree will thus remain a mystery. But thanks to the care it receives, this elm could live another 300 years. We will send someone then to report on how the university is doing compared to the tree. In the meantime, we can enjoy it.